Careful What You Wish For
Facts, as we know them, haven’t been around very long. It was only a hundred and fifty years ago that science, literacy, communications, and availability of written material started kicking in, providing the distribution of knowledge beyond previously limited enclaves.
It was exciting at first, knowing the world as it is, instead of what we thought it was. New discoveries! New understanding! New breakthroughs! All with the promise of more amazing things to come, soon as we got more facts under our belts. Finally, humanity was being liberated from millennia of superstition!
Yeah, funny thing about that: Folks stopped caring.
It’s not like facts had led a blessed existence, free of interference. Facts can be cherry-picked. Facts can be withheld. Facts can be overemphasized, or not emphasized enough. Facts, gathered into arguments, can be twisted beyond recognition.
But even as we were growing up, facts remained a standard of public conversation. Spin like hell if you want, but don’t you dare lie to us. That’s not how we play the game, pal.
The game itself has been dishonest, however, and that has had deep consequences. Spinning may not be lying, but it’s still an obfuscation of truth, an avoidance of reality — and an abrogation of trust. If you’re less than honest with what you know, your word may be doubted on subsequent airings.
When Timothy Leary coined the phrase “Question Authority” in the 1960s, there was good reason to follow his guidance. America’s leaders were being dishonest with America’s citizens — nothing new there, but the gap between words and facts was too great to sustain. In the following decade, facts would emerge about activities conducted in our country’s name that put generations of words to shame. We had been told we were the good guys. In all too many cases, we weren’t.
And then, in November 1980, we collectively decided to hell with facts. They were too crushing to bear. Tell us a good story instead. Give us that old-time superstition.
Facts didn’t just go away overnight. It’s taken us a few decades to wean ourselves off them. But they’ve been steadily eroding, dwindling in significance, to the point where you’re simply adorable for even caring about them. Everybody knows facts don’t matter anymore. Where have you been?
Here’s where we are: A couple of weeks ago, the UK hosted its first Flat Earth Convention, full of presentations with a pretense of scientific practice, but clear disdain for actual, y’know, scientists. A few even showed up for a debate, admonishing the crowd to look beyond videos and bloggers for evidence. “We’re not reliant on what the mainstream are telling us in newspapers,” came the response. “We can decide for ourselves.”
Apply that to vaccinations. Apply that to global warming. Apply that to any field where defiant, aggressive ignorance has replaced even lip-service to facts. We’ve come to question all authority, legitimate or not. We’ve collectively turned away from reality.
Reality’s still there, by the way. So are facts. And we can tell ourselves all the stories we want, but when we step off that cliff, we’re still falling into the abyss.